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I Was a Failed Hand Model

It’s way more work than diligent nail bed upkeep and cuticle maintenance.

Photo: Danielle Richards Photography, provided by the author

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“Let me see your books.” The jewelry designer took both mine and my competition’s model portfolios.

I was on my first hand model go-see and already had one strike against me. The first question she’d asked us was about our zodiac signs and she hadn’t hid her disappointment at my “Cancer” answer, nor her delight for my counterpart’s “Aries.” But I knew the photographs of my hands were pretty damn good, regardless of my apparent substandard sun sign. Until, that is, she flipped open the other girl’s book first. All I saw was photo after glamorous, sexy photo of her, mostly in lingerie, posing provocatively with perfume bottles or jewelry or makeup. Yeah, her hands were in them, but they were all full-body photos.

“Very fierce,” the designer nodded to herself as she flipped through. “Very beautiful.” Then she turned to my portfolio.

“Oh,” she said about the very first photo. It was a picture of my hand with an engagement ring on my finger. Then another of my hand holding a wine glass. Another with my hands clasped together.

“Is this all you have?” she asked when she reached the last page, where I still truly believe I was very artistically holding an egg with my index finger and thumb.

“That’s all,” I somehow managed to say.

“Well, I’ll let your agents know what I decide.” She smiled at the two of us, even though everyone in the room knew exactly what she had already decided.

I didn’t even know how I’d ended up here, auditioning to hand-model jewelry that would take me eight lifetimes or a loveless Wall Street marriage to afford. But after spending time working as a body double on TV shows and in some movies, where my hands often ended up being used in close-up shots in lieu of the actual actress’s, I kept hearing the question “Hey, do you hand model?” I mainly wrote it off as a compliment of my diligent nail bed and cuticle maintenance, but then I met a guy who asked the question seriously and sent me along to meet his agent, who very quickly became mine as well. I nervously went to her office and presented my hands, which she examined carefully and smiled at, then gave me the nod. I was in. Until I started actually auditioning, where something always invariably went wrong.

There was the Febreze print ad commercial where I was directed to hold a sneaker as if the smell was so horrific I could barely stand to touch it. I got approving nods from the casting director and agency reps and a resounding chorus of “Good job!” But as I exited the room and another girl walked in, I heard them all excitedly exclaim her name, saying “Oh, you’re available for this shoot? That’s great, it’s going to be on Thursday.”

As time went on, I would realize this was a common theme. Auditions and callbacks that would usurp days of my time, days I’d opt to call out of other work with the hope for a more lucrative possibility, only to not actually land the job. Often this happened because another model was more established and/or already had a track record with a particular client. It was something that I understood came with the territory — why wouldn’t you hire someone who’d worked out well in the past? — but it was still frustrating.

Like the time I had three callbacks for a Sally Hansen campaign that I didn’t book. For my bill-paying/insurance-providing job at the time, I was working as a stand-in, body double, and extra on any television or film set that would have me. I was paid per day that I worked, so to take off three days in a week (for something that required a perfect fresh manicure each time) was annoying and expensive when it didn’t pan out into something more. I once decided not to give up a day of work and instead snuck off the set of Gossip Girl, where I was working as an extra in one of its famed party scenes, to run to a nearby audition for 20 minutes. But when I arrived to have my hands photographed, I noticed that the costume jewelry ring from GG’s wardrobe department had turned one of my fingers green. Frantically, I used some coverup in my bag to try to blend it back to normal skin tone color, but it still looked like one finger was bizarrely discolored from the rest. In a movie, my sassy wit in the audition room would have landed me the job anyway, but not in real life.

At another audition I walked into a room with the commercial director, and he instructed me to “rearrange the furniture.” Except for the chair he was sitting on, there was no furniture in the room. Considering I hadn’t done any form of improv since high school — and even then wasn’t stellar at it — I awkwardly made my way around the room pretending to adjust nonexistent chairs, move an imaginary coffee table, and close some invisible curtains. All while chanting in my head “You’re so bad at this, this is so bad, why do you do this?” I somehow landed that job and did almost a week’s worth of commercials.

And that’s when I got it. I understood why it was worth it. When you actually get the job, even one in a sea of fruitless attempts, it’s like a drug. The addictive feeling that you were chosen over others, and you’d do anything to feel it again.

In 2008, on Eye to Eye With Katie Couric for CBS, a successful hand model named Ellen Sirot discussed why advertisers like her hands and all the painstaking care she takes to protect them for her livelihood. It was a bizarre interview that prompted parody videos on FunnyorDie and an endless supply of George Costanza oven-mitt references. And every time I mentioned my foray into hand modeling, it was resoundingly mocked by friends and family alike: “You’re not going to become crazy like that lady, are you?” Or “Where are your oven mitts and homemade hyperbaric chamber?” And I scorned it as well. It was easy to mock it as ridiculous and frivolous because, despite the rare job I booked, I really wasn’t succeeding.

One day, many months later, I was requested to audition for a Diet Coke commercial, specifically as the hand holding a can of soda. They also asked if my mother lived nearby, since they were also casting for a real mother/daughter duo. After my mother said “But you say auditions are horrible!” a few dozen times, she finally agreed to give it a shot. We went in and they photographed us casually standing together, pretending to laugh, slinging an arm around each other. Then they asked to take pictures of us alone.

The photographer called out to my mom “All right... just do something natural.” She hesitated briefly and then dramatically thrust her hands in the air á la Molly Shannon’s “Superstar” pose. I covered my face with my hands. The photographer’s assistant hid behind her clipboard and the photographer’s face was twitching so hard from trying not to laugh out loud that he looked like he was having a seizure.

When we left, my mom excitedly prattled on and on about how much fun it was, how nervous she had been, but how nice everyone had seemed and why did I always seem so discouraged about auditions when this is how they were? I let her talk for a full three blocks without answering. Then as we were waiting for the light to cross Houston Street, she finally stopped gushing and turned to me.

“They’re not going to hire us, are they?”

“No, Mom, they’re not.”

(They didn’t).